bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

In memoriam C. S. L. Davies

Posted in Obituaries by bonaelitterae on 29 September, 2016

It has been announced that this morning Cliff Davies, for forty years Fellow in History at Wadham College, Oxford, has died. He has been so much a presence in my life since I arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate that it has hard to imagine the place without him. It seems to me that today the city has lost part of itself — or that its map has become curtailed, and its intellectual geography reduced. He is no longer here to guide us through its memories.

Cliff, I recall, was an obituary-spotter, commenting on not just where a notice was published but how long after the deceased’s death. He himself deserves the full treatment, with the trajectory of his life outlined, from Wales to London, to Oxford, to Glasgow and back to Oxford, and with his many seminal articles noted in such a way that creates a profile of his impact as an historian. Perhaps that will be done in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography — I suspect that he would be honoured to be included. But I am not going to attempt this here: the news is too raw and my reaction too personal for that. All I can provide today are a few vignettes, through which might come a sense of how much we have lost.

First meeting Cliff

I knew of C. S. L. Davies before I came up to university: his Peace, Print and Protestantism was required reading at school. I vaguely remember thinking when seeing him that he was rather different from the image I had conjured up for him from his writing: different and, I was to find, rather more. It was, in my first year, at a meeting of the undergraduate history group, the Stubbs Society, that he introduced himself to me. He and Kathleen — that is something else about Cliff, the quiet warmth of his married life — were regular attenders. At perhaps the second or third evening seminar that I attended, he came up to me and said ‘well, you must be coming up to Finals soon’. I said he could not get rid of my quite yet; neither of us could have realised then how long I would hang around this place and around him.

Cliff as a teacher

I have in front of me the Festschrift dedicated to Cliff in 2002. An opening section describes him as a teacher by three of his former students, all now successful historians. What they write captures vividly what I also experienced in that room, at the top of the narrow staircase, overlooking Wadham’s back quad: the silences, followed by a sudden flow of incisive words, often accompanied by emphatic gestures which were all the more memorable for being less than graceful. Cliff, it is fair to say, did not attempt to effect physical poise; if you want your dons debonair, then he was not for you — and that would be your great loss. Being in his presence was a lesson in not being distracted by appearance and learning to concentrate, for what he had to say was both rich and fresh, a product of that moment.

I cannot claim to have had tutorials with Cliff: he took me in my third year of then undergraduate degree for Special Subject classes, run by him and by Jenny Wormald (who too is no longer with us: they have both departed within a year). I remember the awkward pauses and how I felt I needed to do something to break them, torn between thinking that saying something, however asinine, was better than nothing, and realising that, if I did, I would sink even lower in these tutors’ estimation. More than that, though, I recall the sense of challenge, the need to question and to re-think — and, by having both Jenny and Cliff in the room, the realisation that challenge did not take a single form but was incorrigibly plural: we should not just change perspective, we must multiply them.

How I became Cliff’s doctoral student

That Cliff was the long-suffering supervisor of my doctoral thesis was an act of supreme kindness. When I began to think about my research, I wanted to focus on the concept of tyranny in the late Middle Ages. I visited the Professor of Medieval History at the time, George Holmes (he too is gone: this blog sometimes has the feel of a necrology). It was his task to seek a supervisor for me. I remember one response: ‘of course I am happy to supervise Mr Rundle, but does he really want to study tyranny? After all, as Fortescue tells us, there could be no tyranny in England. Would Mr Rundle not prefer to study local government?’ Mr Rundle did not prefer and Cliff offered himself to be my supervisor, on the understanding that there would be a second, who was George Garnett. As my research developed, it transmogrified: tyranny led me to an interest in civic humanism at a time when I was also discovering the delights (thanks to Malcolm Parkes and Richard Sharpe) of manuscripts. The result was that my studies moved yet further away from Cliff’s own specialism — I should say, specialisms, they were so varied — but he persevered and continued to have telling comments at every stage. He was a devoted supervisor, attending each paper I gave as a graduate student, and reading over the 150,000-word draft in a weekend. I hope he realised how eternally grateful I am to him.

In the process, our relationship changed: he encouraged me to think of myself as becoming a colleague. His article, ‘Tournai and Tyranny’, was the first one he sent me in draft, soliciting my comments. He taught me the collegiality of scholarship.

Indeed, possibly collegiality is a key word for him, for he was dedicated to Wadham and to his students. He encapsulated the virtues of a college life which put the fellowship and the teaching before one’s own ambitions — or, rather, they were his ambition. How old-fashioned that now sounds. If he does stand for another era, he himself would be the first to warn against any nostalgia. Every age has it warts and worse. Perhaps, though, that is what I sense Oxford is losing with his passing: not so much part of its map as a stage in its own life.

Conversations with Cliff

After his retirement, Cliff continued to be a visible presence, researching in the Bodleian and breaking for lunch when he would meet with a friend. I was sometimes his companion on those occasions and, as always, the conversation would range widely, across centuries of history and a sweep of Europe, but with the centrepoint always being Oxford’s past and present. In the last year, those conversations moved to his home. What has proven to be the final time I saw him there was just under a fortnight ago: though he was physically weaker, his mind was fearsomely alert and precise in its recollections. I enjoyed my visits and learnt from them as I had always done in my encounters with Cliff. I was expecting those occasions to continue in the coming months and years. It is difficult to come to terms with the realisation that the opportunity has died.

Re-reading what I have just written, I appreciate how much of it is about the momentary: the pattern of speech or the style of gestures. That, of course, is the bulk of life and it is what history can capture only rarely. But that is, fundamentally, what I believe I learnt from Cliff: to construct history from life, not from abstractions or from theories. He instilled that by his writings and his teaching but also by how he lived. How much we and Oxford have lost.



Never mind the book, read the review

Posted in British History by bonaelitterae on 4 April, 2012

Sometimes a scholarly review can be as useful as the book reviewed, sometimes more so. Historians of fifteenth-century England know this: we remember Colin Richmond’s ‘After MacFarlane’ but may be less able to recall all the works he discussed in that 1983 article. If a roll-call of seminal reviews of the period was to be compiled, there is a new entry certain to be included, John Watts’ on-line review of Michael Hicks’ latest volume, The Wars of the Roses.

Watts’ comments appear on the Reviews in History website, run by the IHR in London. One of the site’s boasts is that it can provide greater space than usual for a review and Watts makes full use of this. What it allows him to do is to present something more than a discussion of the merits and flaws of the book under review, writing with studied urbanity in response to Hicks; it also permits him, first, to place the latest addition to the literature on the Wars in a broad historiographical context, giving appropriate acknowledgement to MacFarlane, Tony Pollard and Christine Carpenter, and, second,  to set out an agenda for future work. It is this road-map for the community of historians of fifteenth-century England that is the review’s real value. Watts notes Hicks’ own attention to the economic and international context of the period and he goes on to list other elements which deserve further study: the role of the towns, of policy to Ireland, the intervention of print (in the later decades), ‘neoclassicism’, and the related changes in education and literacy.

Some of these proposed areas of study are, of course, close to my heart, though, en passant, I would caution against seeing neoclassicism as an intellectual context for the conflict of the mid-century: at that point, it seems, rather, to have been a prism through which a few tried to apprehend what was happening around them, while, with a change of generation in the 1460s it became increasingly one mode of behaviour that could be adopted in politics and, particularly, diplomacy. It is also my sense that it remained one among several available modes, even into the 1500s when it was certainly becoming the dominant style of international correspondence. Perhaps more significant may have been the immediate impact of print — whether the new technology made England more or less governable in the last quarter of the fifteenth century could provide an interesting debate — though we might wonder how significant that was, considering the possibilities of manuscript circulation of bills and manifestoes that was a feature of both the beginning and the end of the 1450s.

We all might want to gloss Watts’ list of suggestions, revising and adding to them, but what is important is that we engage with the challenge he has presented. Personally, I would want to encourage us to broaden the chronological context slightly: Hicks’ book takes ‘the end of the wars’ up to 1525 and any encroachment onto the supposedly ‘early modern’ period is to be welcomed, but we might want to consider where to start the tale. Carpenter’s text-book begins ‘c. 1437′ — should we not stretch this back further to consider how far the nature of a long minority cast a shadow over later decades? Were the behaviours learnt to accommodate the absence of an adult monarch difficult to unlearn when (in body at least) he had reached something closer to maturity? Did, in other words, the minority generation live too long?

And, finally, let me throw in another factor. Hicks, in the preface to his book, makes a nod to Cliff Davies’ critique of our modern concept of a ‘Tudor dynasty’ — a critique the full force of which is probably still to be recognised. Of course, historians of Lancastrian and Yorkist England know their equivalent — the ‘Wars of the Roses’  — is an historiographical construct with little contemporary purchase. The term ‘roses’ always comes with caveats, but what of the term ‘war’? To modern ears, conditioned by memories of total war and images of ‘shock and awe’, as well as by expectations of policed peace, the concept has perhaps become so distant from the reality of occasional internecine conflict over a fifty year period that it can mislead rather than inform. Should we be returning to the points about the numbers of combatants made some decades ago by Tony Goodman? Should we be comparing in more depth (Hicks does this briefly) the experience of civil conflict with the impact of chevauchée and territorial invasion that defined the bouts of the Hundred Years’ War? I pose these as queries because, following John Watts’ lead, it is surely time not to give answers but to ask questions.

In Praise of the Simple: an open letter of C. S. L. Davies

Posted in Historiography, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 18 November, 2009

Dear Cliff,

To review a review article might seem to be like being the flea on the back of the insect on the back of the lumbering mammal, but it is what I am about to do. I have just read your piece in the latest English Historical Review on Kevin Sharpe’s Selling the Tudor Monarchy. It is a sign of how stimulating I found it that I can not resist writing to you about my immediate reaction.

I particularly enjoyed seeing you develop further your Tudor-sceptic line, first outlined in the Times Literary Supplement. It is a salutary reminder that descent but not dynasty mattered, that what concerned these monarchs was precisely not the accident of a surname they did not use. You neatly respond to the mental  shrug of shoulders that some might have when realising the sixteenth-century English vocabulary is poorer, in effect, by one word. But, I must say, I think you still sell it short, so to speak: that the Tudors did not see themselves as Tudor, that 1485 was neither presented or remembered as a change of dynasty, should make us stop and think about our concepts of periodisation. Bosworth, which can be claimed to have seen the death of a tyrant, is itself a tyranny, dividing ‘medieval’ from ‘early modern’, with the following 118 years perceived as having some sort of internal coherence. We might need periods as a heuristic tool, and as a way of sorting out office space in university corridors, but we rarely stop at that: we begin to believe they reflect some deeper reality, and so slide back into Hegelian notions of the ‘age’ and its geist. Personally, I would prefer that we emphasised that change is a piecemeal process, that even if a paradigm shifts, life tout court does not — that there are no absolute dividing lines. But if we must order ourselves into chronological segments, at least it helps if we change their shapes as deftly as clouds change theirs. Your debunking of what we will have to call the ‘Tudor myth’ helps us to think again about what we would see as significant ‘turning-points’ — the equivalents (to echo your use of modern parallels) of 1989 or 11/9 — in the fifteenth and sixteenth century. If we take 1485 as a moment of relatively minor dislocation, with the fortuitous settling of a rekindled family squabble, we can look elsewhere for key moments when the pace of political and cultural (note that combination — to which I will return) change quickened, when innovation and concomitant destruction went hand in hand. At the latter end, we would have what you have dubbed the ‘Eltonian decade’, the 1530s; but, at the other end, how far would we retreat — to 1422 and the reality of a minority which challenged the nature of the political order, to 1399 and another non-change of non-dynasty? I would put down a marker for the 1460s, when I sense the language of English politics begins to alter in a way soon catalysed by the importing of print in the same era. But wherever we place the goal-posts, we must remember that it is a game, not a fixture.

I like even more than your de-Tudoring of the subject the line of thinking to which that led you in your piece. If not a dynasty, what was there to sell? The individual monarchs, of course, though there was, I would stress, little about this process that was ‘individual’. You pick up on the talk of ‘negotiation’ between sovereign and people, and highlight the importance of ‘reception’, particularly in its resistant or unintended modes. I am hugely sympathetic to this: we need to seek out, as it were, the graffiti artists defacing the official image — if, that is, the ‘official’ has meaning for this era. Image-making was, both of necessity and of choice, so often out-sourced, so remote from the individual it supposedly ‘projected’, that there was no officium masterminding representations. The displays at royal entries, for instance, were obviously not designed to a palace blueprint, even though the guilds and other organisers were attempting to depict what they thought would be appropriate — that, in other words, there was a straining to identify and to reinforce a shared language. This was surely less about projection than ‘imposition’, the dressing up of the monarch in garb chosen for him or her by those around and beyond, as in the image of the undressed and dressed Louis XIV discussed by Peter Burke. Image, I am arguing, was so susceptible to intervention, to redirection, as well as to misunderstanding and hostility, that it was very rarely under control. The messages that can be conveyed with any success are, in the first place, as you mention, ones that are repeated time and again, in coins, in services, in what you, and John Cooper, term the banal. But I would add the most subtle of activities can provide a message that is all headline and no fine print and this brings me to something about which I know a little: princely libraries.

Once again, I was delighted to see your brief reference to royal libraries and quite agree with your scepticism: they were not built up with an eagle eye on direct and specific political advantage that could be gained from them and their contents.  I don’t deny that some princes read some of the time, but the collecting of a library was not a private pursuit. You say that we do not know much about who had access to the books; in some cases, we certainly do, and can see those around the prince actively intervening in ‘his’ books. I think, in particular, of the collection of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester but what I say for the early fifteenth century also works for at least some of the period you are discussing. But what is as interesting as the use in the library itself is how the books got there in the first place: in a phrase from a thesis you may remember reading back in 1997, book ownership for a prince was an occupational hazard. They might — on the advice of their secretaries and other members of the household — buy books, but a large number were also presented to them. It is often imagined that if a presentation occurred, the prince presumably wanted to accept the book. I do know of a few cases where a presentation failed to happen, but more often, I suspect, the prince felt the need to accept a gift, created and provided unsolicited, for otherwise the accusation of lack of magnanimity would hang around him or her. In other words, authors were rarely commissioned; they produced works which they might think would suit a prince they may have known only through repute, and thus add to the image in partial ignorance. Any recompense to the author was usually only received after the presentation occurred, making the production, particularly of a manuscript, a ‘loss-leader’, intended to recoup costs after the event. But, what matters more in the context of what you were saying, is that the importance for the prince lay less in the book itself but in the act of presentation — a moment identifying the prince as worthy of the respect of the person kneeling before him. In that sense, the books themselves are a recollection of previous events, witnesses to that respect and to an affinity that has existed, however temporarily. The books, in their chests, had only latent power: it was, as you mention, only when they are taken out of the hiding-places, put on display, or on loan, that they made real that potency. Or, I should add, when they were given away — as, for instance, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester did when he had carried away from his palace hundreds of his books as donations to the University of Oxford. It was an outsize action with an outsize message of his generosity and his respect for learning.

And this is the explanation, as I would see it, for the existence of those libraries: they were not necessarily repositories of wisdom to inform policy decisions, but they provided a simple and helpfully vague message about a prince being associated with learning. To try to identify a more precise or nuanced ‘image’ being ‘projected’ is to fall into one of the two traps you describe in your article.  A prince could hardly avoid owning a collection and, as you point out, if a prince was bookless, they would be open to the imputation — from the relatively few — of a lack of necessary virtue. I say the relatively few but this particular audience, of peers (in every sense), of ‘opinion-formers’ domestic and foreign, mattered for a prince’s political reputation. In saying this I come to my last point: I do not see the separation you make between ‘political’ and ‘cultural’. I can not envisage a sphere — beyond perhaps the privy, but even there David Starkey would disagree — when the prince or monarch is not on display, in action, and thus political. A culture of politics suffused their existence, where even past-times were not simply play. This is not to deny the main points that you make, but rather to rephrase it: shrewd calculation of specific political benefits played no role in allowing a room in one’s palace to be given over to the books one came to own, but a library, like the palaces themselves, or the menageries and other exotica that cluttered them, was an element in the cultural impedimenta that were unavoidably part of the prince’s political existence. That owning a book collection had its use — simple, unsubtle, even banal — was an old reality of political life.

My thanks for having set me thinking and distracting me so usefully from the work I should have been doing these last hours!

Best wishes, as always,